I've just staggered in from an afternoon at a speed dating event, exhausted but exhilarated.
I made a last minute decision to attend and went in my usual Sunday Market attire: unwashed hair, an elderly pair of jeans, a merino and red clogs. Thankfully, some shred of sartorial instinct had prompted me to throw a beaded cardigan on at the last minute. I’m hoping that my suitors only noticed the sparkly bits.
Ticktock Dating is one company that manages speed dating in New Zealand. Their website describes how their events work. “On your arrival you will be met by two of our charming and entertaining hosts” it explains and “you’ll enjoy free champagne and gourmet canapés in a private area at one of our exclusive venues. Our hosts guide you through the night making sure you are having a great time”. The speed dating event I went to wasn't quite as glamorous as a Ticktock do which was just as well ...
Two very friendly gentlemen greeted me at the door of the Suburban Club in Tahunanui and placed my gold coin donation into their plastic bucket. This entitled me to a typed list of participants, entry into a large, plain room filled with ragged groupings of tables and chairs. There were raffle tickets for sale but no champagne. And no gourmet canapés.
The organisation was very laid back. At a Ticktock event I would have had only 5 minutes with each participant to decide if they “tickled my fancy”. Here, I could stroll up and talk to whoever I liked, for as long as I liked. No one was at all cagey about revealing personal details. In fact I was inundated with email, website and home addresses and Facebook pages, as well as a welter of personal and professional information.
You've guessed haven’t you, that this wasn't really a speed dating event? It just felt like one. It was actually a meet-the-candidates-for-Nelson-city-council event hosted by the Nelson Residents Association. The analogy probably shouldn't be pushed too far, but the parallels are striking: the rampant tension between hope and cynicism; distrustful survivors of painful affairs looking for a less fickle Mr or Ms Right; suitors on their best behaviour using every moment at their disposal to convince you of their sincerity, understanding, honesty and dependability.
As I sat with each candidate, I tried to short-circuit any talk about policy and platforms - information which is readily available from hand-outs. I resisted charm, bonhomie, Clintonesque handshakes and wafts of cologne. I wanted to know the candidates as human beings, a glimpse into their hearts. You see? I said the process was like looking for a date. Some candidates were utterly unable to abandon their rehearsed sales pitches and connect on a personal level.
Others took great pleasure in engaging in conversation, wherever the conversation led. From one candidate I heard about a formative experience he’d had in Cambodia, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. Another told me about her Dad. One confessed that in spite of the travelling he does, everything which gives his life meaning is to be found within one small slice of Nelson. Then there was the one with a mixed cultural heritage who talked about the feeling of not quite belonging in either culture. And the one who admitted that his first term as Councillor involved an awful lot of learning.
Of course the ability to be open and talk easily with a stranger is no guarantee that a person will make a good mayor or city councillor. These roles demand huge reserves of patience, optimism and resilience as well as intelligence and hard graft. But for me it is an important quality nonetheless. When I left the Suburban Club I felt I had learnt more about the candidates in an afternoon than I would have gleaned from hours poring over flyers, policy statements and media reports.
It wasn't until I got home that I was able put my finger on the essential difference between dating and electioneering. Dating involves a couple who decide to marry if they fancy each other enough. The poor dears who are elected to council however, must join a ménage a treize with people they may not fancy in the slightest. They can’t choose who they will marry (we voters do that for them) and they have to get into bed with whoever we choose, regardless of their temperament or personalities. Given that about a third of marriages in New Zealand - the ordinary kind that involve just two people - end in divorce, it’s amazing that a marriage involving thirteen people ever survives for the statutory three years.
Winston Churchill famously said that "Democracy is the worst form of government … except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". Less famously, he also said that democracy is “the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper”. He forgot to mention the little woman with a little pencil who’s done a bit of speed dating with the candidates. She’ll be making a few little crosses on a little bit of paper later this month.